Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Just you and I. ... And our 923 friends?

My grandfather left his village (which my mother claims has always been a small town and never a village!) deep in the southern part of India to go study in Varanasi.  This was back in the early 1930s, in an India where most people hadn't even seen a light bulb and where outdoor dry toilets and manual scavenging were the norm.  After days of train journey, grandfather would reach his student quarters and then write a letter to inform his parents that he had reached.  That letter would take days to reach his parents.  This was the practice through all the years of his undergraduate studies in metallurgy.

Two decades later, my father, an engineering graduate in a newly independent India,  decided that exciting industrial projects were beginning in places far, far away from his village (which he does agree was a village) and went to join the dam construction projects, modeled after the US' TVA.  Typically, it took him four to five days from the time he left the village and reached his bachelor quarters.  Upon reaching, he penned a letter that typically took five to seven days to reach grandma.

My father and grandfather did not even pause to think that these were nightmarish conditions.  After all, had they thought that way, they would not have ventured out at all to places far, far away from their homes.  Often alone by themselves.  In places where the language, foods, and almost every aspect of culture was different from what they were used to.

Now, we live in a world that is hyperconnected.  We Facebook where we are, what we eat, what we do, where we travel. We tweet where we are, what we eat, what we do, and where we travel. We Instagram where we are, what ... well, you get my point.

Loneliness is no longer a part of life anymore, it seems.  To such an extent is the transformation that we easily think that any individual who is a loner is up to some kind of a mischief, a la the unabomber.  I should know, given the number of times the police have barged into my home because the neighbors complained about my solitary existence.  Nah, I am kidding. Well, kidding about the police, that is--they always brought doughnuts ;)

Loneliness makes us think about life and our own place in this universe.  In the old country, those bent on this inquiry went into the forests so that they could be alone to contemplate about existence.  Of course, such meditation was in the contexts of god and prayers, but there was a conviction that loneliness helps.

If we are hyper-connected, then when do we have the time to think about our own existence?  This atheist agrees with those who worry about it even if from a religious framework:
Silence and seclusion are harder to find, and fewer people seek them out. You find a lone bench in the park on a fall afternoon, gaze up at the sky through the branches, and begin the Rosary only to have a power walker march by barking into an invisible mic. It’s not just the noise, it’s his connection to absent persons, as if to say that being in one place alone with the Lord is insufficient.
Yep, even when we are alone, we are no longer alone, it seems.
Social media is the culprit. Text­ing, selfies, updates, chats, snapchats, tweets, multiplayer games, blogs, wikis, and email enable people to gossip, boast, rant, strategize, self-promote, share, collaborate, inform, emote, and otherwise connect with one another anywhere and all the time. The volume is astounding. Earlier this year, Facebook boasted 1.23 billion active users, while late last year Twitter’s 200 million users sent 400 million tweets per day. According to Nielsen Media, a teen with a mobile device sends or receives on average around 3,300 text messages per month, in addition to logging 650 minutes of phone calls.
Those habits, which researchers term “hypersociality,” dominate leisure time. Data analyst Bill Tancer found in 2008 that social media had passed pornography as the most popular type of search. The whole range of fallen human motives passes through the tools, but the prime one is, precisely, “I want not to be alone.”
There is something seriously wrong, don't you think, when all these decades of "education" has only led us to how we are afraid to be alone because, if alone we might have to think about important questions like who we are and why we exist?
People awash in ­social media can’t get past the paradox that the best salve for loneliness is ­properly applied alone. They look for answers in added connections, and more-­emotional ones, but God isn’t a closer contact and better friend. He transcends the social, and you must seek him beyond the medium of “share” and “like.” In solitary prayer, the secular pleasures dissipate and the successes of social media melt into nothingness. You drop your social self.
My grandfather and father used their alone time to reflect on life.  They read, listened to music, and communed with their gods.  This atheist believes that was a far better existence than the current way of being afraid of inquiring about the human condition itself.

Maybe I am nothing but an old soul trapped in a younger body and living in digital age.  But, surely there is more to life than posting a Facebook status update, right?

Source: seriously, you can't recognize this as from the New Yorker? ;)


Ramesh said...

Thought provoking.

I'll give you a different flavour of the old days in India. Migrant labour was required in the British colonies. A ship would anchor off the land in either the Bay of Bengal or Arabian Sea. Calls went to villages for labourers prepared to go for work. People who were willing, got on to the ship without a clue as to where they were going - it could be Singapore or Malaysia or Fiji , or else South Africa or the Caribbean. In any case, these names probably meant little to the worker. He just went, probably got marooned in the destination if it was Fiji or South Africa and that was that. The family back home never heard of him and he simply made a different life in the new country he was taken to. How alien that could have been.

And yet, I don't believe he was lonely. He had a different social group -that's all. He married a fellow traveller , raised a family .......

My grandfather was one such person. Thankfully, his ship only took him to Singapore and he came back. Else I would surely not have been born !!

Your major point of how people are afraid of being lonely is very true. The desperate urge for connecting is probably a basic human impulse - designed by evolution for survival. There is a lot more to life than tweeting or posting on Facebook my friend (hint hint !!)

Anne in Salem said...

"Loneliness is no longer a part of life." I disagree completely. There are many people, perhaps especially teenagers, who have only superficial social media relationships. They lack the meaningful relationships that come from shared experiences in real life, not behind a computer - jobs, travel, hobbies, etc. They also lack the communication skills required for such intimacy.

Used properly, the internet and social media are powerful tools that can foster rich relationships that might not otherwise develop. In order to harness that power for maximum benefit, the users first must know how to communicate without it.

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, perhaps I didn't articulate that well, Anne. It is no longer a part of life as in people--including the demographics you write about--are afraid to embrace lonely moments as valuable opportunities in so many ways. Because they don't embrace that loneliness, because they don't welcome that loneliness, because they don't want to give "loneliness" the rightful place in their lives, they seek "fake" friendship in the social media. To quote Bauerlin, "People awash in ­social media can’t get past the paradox that the best salve for loneliness is ­properly applied alone."

Funny we three people are so concerned about social media, when our friendship was made possible by social media in the first place ;)

And, yes, when our grandfathers set sail--literally and figuratively--they knew they would be strangers and alone for a while until they established meaningful relationships. It is not that they were heading into the forests wanting to be alone. But, the fact that they were ready to handle that "feeling alone" made them who they were.

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